31 January 2006
I step through plastic tent flaps into a night that is solid black. To my left, cigarette ends glow orange and move like purposeful fireflies as two smokers gesture to each other. A pair of booted feet appears in a moving circle of light then disappears trailing a crunch, crunch, crunch. I look up. My pupils widen and I see stars that brighten the longer I stand here watching them. The steady whir of SUV-size diesel generators reminds me I am on a US military installation, however, close to nature but not truly in it.
It is calm here in Hit, a small city in western Iraq, at least relative to more dangerous places in Iraq like Baghdad, Ramadi, Taji, and Fallujah, and compared to Iskandariya, where I spent several weeks last year and the year before. I have been in Hit one week. The group I am embedded with, the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, just passed its 40-day mark. No Marines have been killed nor have any of their Iraqi Army counterparts. “Contact” with the enemy has been minimal, which frustrates some oorah Marines, but most grunts I have talked to are fine with the lower threat level.
There have been injuries, however, military and civilian, most of them from roadside bomb blasts. In the early days of the MEU’s deployment, a senior officer was badly wounded when a bomb blew up his vehicle. An improvised bomb tore up a Navy corpsman’s legs as he drove through the area weeks later. He was evacuated to Germany but surgeons couldn’t save his legs. A few days ago a rocket killed an elderly man in his home. The Marines didn’t fire it. They attribute the attack to insurgents, that unquantifiable mass of antioccupation fighters, sectarian killers, jihadis, and straight-up criminals.
Last night I sat in the Combat Operations Center of Firm Base 5, home to B (“Bravo”) Company of Battalion Landing Team 1/2, the MEU’s infantry arm, killing time. A quavering voice reported over the radio that a seven-ton truck had rolled off an embankment. Over the airwaves, a flustered corpsman gave an incomplete and tentative account of the situation. The officer at the other end of the conversation listened, then sternly told the corpsman to go back and get all the facts. Moments later, a senior medical officer broke it down to the officer in appropriately clinical detail – spine injury … lacerated left ankle … possible broken pelvis…. Two Marines were medevaced to the US base at Balad. Their “injuries were serious enough to leave the theater,” the public affairs officer told me later. Two others suffered less grievous injuries and should return to duty in a couple of days.
Today an Iraqi soldier working with US forces and two kids got shot in an insurgent ambush, the Marines reported. Both children died. As I said, the calm is relative.
1 February 2006
At 7:00 this morning the air is damp and a cloudy haze joins the yellow brown earth to the gray-blue sky. It’s not cold, it’s cool, low 40s, but the moisture creeps beneath my fleece and my long johns and chills me. “Are we gonna get rain?” I ask a master sergeant puffing a cigar on the “smoke deck” outside the public affairs tent. “Oh, we’ll get some,” he replies. I know the land needs rain but I am not looking forward to it. Rain turns the ground, which is equal parts gravel, soil, sand, and clay, into thick cocoa-color mud. Marine operations step off in all weather. That means sleeping in the mud and wet – no tents or shelter. I am not relishing the prospect.
Saddam provided the structural guts of Camp Hit. It’s an old Iraqi Army training facility on a large plot of bleak land a few kilometers away from the nearest town. Block-long, two-story concrete buildings form quadrangles that the MEU has stuffed with tents, shipping containers, vehicles, and machinery. Hesco barriers filled with dirt and stacks of sand bags surround most structures to protect against mortar and rocket attacks. Sensitive and secret areas are ringed with concertina wire, which makes nighttime navigation difficult and potentially painful for gormless people like me. There’s an abandoned and partially destroyed mosque at one edge of the camp and a constantly smoking pit where Marines burn garbage at the other end . Not much else to speak of.
As the sun rises, folks shuffle from their buildings toward the porta-a-johns, shitters in Marinespeak, toting rolls of TP or a tub of baby wipes. Others trudge toward the shower tent with towel and toiletries. A line of Marines and sailors forms outside the mess, a full-on kitchen in a trailer. They wait for the first of two hot meals that’ll be served today (lunch is an MRE or a cup of noodles from a care package). On this morning’s menu: a prefab omelet that’s about twice the circumference of a coaster; a heap of gummy hash browns; two sausage links (beef? pork? who knows?); and a bagel with a shmear of cream cheese wrapped in plastic. After being served, personnel file into the chow hall, a tent pitched on gravel with plywood tables. Beat-up freezers hold beverages. Among the choices are red and orange Gatorade, red Fanta soda, long-life milk (only banana and strawberry today; plain milk ran out a couple of days ago), and nonalcoholic Beck’s beer. This is worlds away from the Army’s deluxe KBR-maintained digs in Baghdad.
Accommodations at the MEU’s satellite camps, the “firms bases,” are even less luxurious. Firm Base 5, Bravo Company’s home, is housed in a former elementary school. It’s a mini version of Camp Hit but with tighter quarters and fewer amenities. There’s no mess, per se. The Marines rustle up hot meals by heating vacuum-sealed trays of food in hot water. Their shitters are crudely modified plastic port-a-johns. There’s a flap cut out of the rear panel where an end of 50-gallon drum collects what is deposited. Each morning junior Marines burn the waste. One grunt gleefully told me how Bravo’s commanding officer, Captain Moni Laube, his executive officer and First Sergeant did shit-burning duty a few weeks ago. That did a lot for morale, the young man said with an appreciative nod.
Farther out, there’s the Driftwood, a Bravo Company outpost that’s named for a seedy strip club near Camp Lejeune. Staff Sergeant David Marino, a 25-year-old infantryman I spent time with last year, and his lieutenant, the titular commander, run the platoon there. The platoon, about 40 guys (all men – women Marines can’t serve in infantry companies, but they serve in the MEU and are present in small numbers at Camp Hit) occupies the shell of a half-finished house. Wind blows through cracks in its porous walls. The floor is dirt. Every step stirs up a cloud of fine dust. Since Marines move constantly through the building, the cloud never dissipates entirely. I spent a night listening to a symphony of deep lung coughs throughout the house and wriggling on my cot to stay warm. Crawling out of my sleeping bag the next morning offered as much relief as the few hours of sleep I stole from the night.
There’s no electricity, so grunts navigate at night with glow sticks and, occasionally, flashlights. They boil sealed chow trays in an ammo can over a fire, urinate into tubes dug into the ground, and crap into plastic bags that they burn. I raised an eyebrow at the facilities but most of Marino’s guys tell me they love it – not the crapping into a bag, but the freedom of being away from senior officers who tend to be more demanding about certain Marine Corps regulations – principally hair length and beard growth – than Marino and Lieutenant Ryan Bumgardner.
Patrols step off from the Driftwood around the clock, as they do from all the MEU’s bases. Commanders at Hit determine times, duration, and route, but the patrol leader has some discretion about how and whom to search.
Marino’s up-armored Humvee chugs through the front gate with a small complement of vehicles behind it. His patrol route takes him through a stretch of desert where a roadside bomb exploded a few weeks ago. Marino climbs out of the vehicle to check the crater the blast made. The other vehicles in the convoy peel off to form a security cordon around Marino and the hole. The truck's noses point away from the crater; turret gunners aim their weapons into the distance. Marino explains that bomb-planters sometimes reuse these holes to lay more explosives, hence the periodic checks.
The convoy rolls through a small cluster of tidy, solid-looking homes. Marino dismounts to make a “house call”. He asks a man in English if Marines may search his house. The man assents with a tentative gesture, so the combat gear-clad Marines enter, treading on carpeted floors with mud-crusted boots. No interpreter accompanies this patrol, so communication is almost purely gestural. Weapons? “La, la, la” – no, no, no - the Iraqi man responds before understanding the question. He then walks toward an armoire from which the Marines pull a single AK-47. The family is allowed to keep it for its own protection. Women huddle in one room with children. A Marine pokes his head in, takes a few steps inside, then exits.
I have witnessed more than a few dozen house searches in Iskandariya, Musayyib, Haswa and other towns south of Baghdad. I have heard women scream and watched children cry. I have watched MAMs - military-age men – glower at the grunts and Iraqi soldiers who rifle through their cupboards. Here, no one screamed, cried, or glowered, at least not that I witnessed. What I think I saw in these people's faces is resignation and wariness. I saw no obvious joy, though a couple of the kids looked curious and amused. Marines have orders to conduct these invasive and unpleasant searches; Iraqis must endure them.
I chose to follow Marino on his rounds because he is, in my mind, among the best and brightest the Marines – and the US military – have out here. I can’t say I have understood or agreed with all I have seen him do, but I know that he executes orders from “higher,” as logical, odd, or plain stupid as they may seem to be, with humanity. I have watched him address Iraqis with respect during many hours on the oft-attacked streets of Musayyib and here in Hit. And, just as crucially, I have seen him listen. I have watched other US servicemen perform these same tasks without Marino’s skill or compassion - young Americans armed to the nipples bullying Iraqi men who have no option but to submit. Afterwards I have felt as though I had peered into the eyes of the angry and emasculated young men who will be the next generation of anti-US fighters. Staff Sergeant Marino ended the encounter with firm handshakes and candy for the kids.
Beyond routine patrols, the MEU has launched two large operations, Hedgehog, a sweep for weapons and anti-US forces in Hit proper, and Koa Canyon, a 10-day sweep during which Marines covered roughly 70 miles on foot. They unearthed 45 weapons caches, the MEU reported, during searches of homes, palm groves, and desert. They seized thousands of artillery and mortar rounds, which they later blew up, and they detained over 100 people, screened them, and then forwarded those deemed to be insurgents to the US base at al Asad. Of those, 13 were transferred to Abu Ghraib, said Major Eric Dent of Public Affairs.
I have learned once again that media matter to Marines. The Marine Times, a publication not connected to the US government, ran an article quoting several Bravo Marines by name griping about the more onerous jobs they perform at the Driftwood - shitter detail, cleaning the showers, that sort of stuff. First Sergeant Evans, the senior enlisted man who oversees these jobs, was not amused, nor were the officers above him. Several ass chewings followed. (I didn't witness them.)
That night, my first at Firm Base 5, a pair of Marines was found with a handful of pills, ones not issued by a doctor or a corpsman. A Navy doc who examined one of the Marines told a company officer he exhibited “signs of intoxication”. From behind a closed door I heard the fallout - yelling and slamming doors - in the hallway. The First Sergeant, still smarting from the Marine Times story, sequestered me in the Combat Operations Center, the headquarters office, while senior NCOs inspected each Marine’s personal gear for contraband. (None was found.)
A day later I told the public affairs officer, Major Dent, what had happened. He shook his head. By confining me to the COC he felt the First Sergeant had turned a molehill into a potential media mountain. According to the embedding agreement I signed, no one can stop an embed from observing what happens around him, though the DoD does restrict what can be published and when (names of US deaths must be embargoed until first of kin are notified, faces of detainees cannot be published).
Though I chafed at the First Sergeant’s call, I understood it. I could have challenged him but I decided not to. And I found out what was going on by asking the company commander. He stared at me for a few long seconds then told me the basic facts. While the bust held some significance – if these Marines are found guilty, they will be kicked out of the service and may wind up in jail - the drug debacle seemed peripheral. Had they been intoxicated on post, or had their alleged inebriation resulted in casualties, a kerfuffle would, for me, have blossomed instantly into a hard news story
The MEU will leave Hit soon. A handful of these same grunts will return in a few months for their second, third, or fourth pump in Iraq. The Bush administration may be scaling down the US force, but Marines and soldiers will be rotating in and out of Iraq for years to come.
It’s now midday. I sit in the public affairs tent. It’s warm thanks to the industrial heater outside that blows warm air through a fat duct overhead. On one side, flak jackets, helmets, and camera gear cover a cot. On the other, two junior Marines write stories for the MEU’s website on laptops. A civilian photog from Reuters pulls at computer cords and wires. I type and nibble “vegetable manicotti” from a foil pouch, part of a calorie-dense MRE. And I pray ardently for sun over the next few days.